A syllabus for enjoying television about cults (and thinking about it too)
by Leora Fridman
For a long time, it was a guilty pleasure, but then guilty pleasure became something less than guilty. For me, any kind of pleasure was a triumph for much of the last few years. It is dark out there, and often dark in here too.
I teach, write, and read texts about trauma and illness and politicized bodies. I write across forms, sometimes joking that I do this because I never really learned to write well in any of them — poetry, essay, art criticism, novels, critical theory. I believe in the cut across, the code-switch, the interrogation of convention and narrative, the inter-cultural, the relational. Though these are my ethics and my aesthetics, the feeling that I don’t fit still haunts me. What a fantasy it would be to perfectly fit, to slide into a system and trust, relax.
This is one of my many rationales for why I so deeply enjoy television about cults. With this content, I get to flirt with the idea of fitting — something I don’t imagine I’ll ever trust a system or a person enough to do. But I sure can watch others do it.
You may already enjoy television or movies about cults, and you may have your own reasons or theories for loving them. Perhaps you were raised in a religion and refused it, and there are parts of that belonging that you miss. Perhaps, like me, you were raised in a secularized version of a belief system that always felt halfway, and you wonder what it would be like to go all the way. Perhaps, also like me, your ancestors assimilated into whiteness though they were not always white, and you find yourself anxiously tracking whether or not you conform to the dominant culture. Perhaps you are perched on the edge of a climate apocalypse, and you just want someone to tell you what to do.
There are so many reasons why cult content is pervasive right now, and why it might appeal to you. It brings up essential questions about belonging, commitment, and how we choose to find faith, particularly when life is chaotic and confusing. This content might help you consider how your lived experience informs what you believe in and how you judge the belief systems of others.
One thing that makes me not a cult leader is I prefer to open questions than close them or give one certain version of the truth. What I like to do most as a teacher and as a writer is provide prompts: open questions that allow you to think and make your own creative work. Below you’ll find a (definitely not exhaustive) sampler platter of contemporary cult-related content, along with a few invitation-questions. I encourage you to respond to these in whatever form feels easiest and most pleasurable to you — because another part of what I’m curious about in investigating this content is ease, and pleasure, and how and when we find those, or mediate who we can receive them from whom.
So: I invite you to write or draw or move or have a conversation with a friend or design an outfit for yourself in response to these questions. Notice what, in your own responses, feels good. What feels scary? What feels like a natural fit? What feels jagged? What feels safe?
Wild Wild Country (2018)
I consider this one the entry-level cult doc, because it’s a gateway for a lot of people into the genre. It’s about a utopian city founded in Oregon by followers of the Indian mystic Rajneesh (aka Osho) and the conflict this city develops with local ranchers. In my experience, boomers tend to like it because they remember it happening, and millennials tend to like it because of parallels with contemporary Trumpish rural vs urban political divides.
- Who do you find yourself siding with in this narrative, and why? How might that be informed by contemporary politics?
- What racialized dynamics do you notice in this piece? What about gender? Who do you instinctively consider evil or good, and how might this be informed by pre-existing belief systems around you?
- What belief systems presented by characters in the doc resonate with you, and how?
The Vow (2020)
Former leaders of the “self-improvement” organization NXIVM narrate what drew them into the fold of leader Keith Reinere, who (spoiler alert) was eventually convicted of sex trafficking among other financial crimes.
- I often hear people say in response to cult docs: I would never be that stupid or I’m smart enough to know better. Do you have any of these kinds of responses? Who seems “smart” or “dumb” to you in this show? What kind of intelligence (or lack thereof) are we talking about here?
- I read and think often about kink and non-normative sex and relationships. I wondered, in this show, about where the line is between consensual and non-consensual kink. What feels consensual here and what doesn’t? How do you define consent? (For additional thinking on the complications of consent, I recommend Amia Srinivasan’s The Right to Sex, Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness, and Raven Leilani’s Luster.)
Bad Vegan (2022)
A high-end vegan restauranteur becomes prey to a con-man who creates a cult-of-one by convincing her that by undergoing a series of personal trials — primarily involving wiring him massive amounts of money — she and her dog will become immortal. There’s a lot to think about in this one about “gateway” cultures — Sarma, the main character, is already exposed to quite a bit of new age and wellness rhetoric through her work world. This gateway rhetoric seems to make her susceptible to otherwise wackadoodle beliefs.
- I found myself thinking a lot in this one about the damsel in distress. The main character is your classic nice thin white lady, well-educated, etc. For most of the series, she’s presented as an innocent. What does or doesn’t make you trust her innocence? What visual cues contribute to this?
- Who in your life do you rely on to “check” you or give you real talk? I’m thinking here about how the organizer and writer Dean Spade encourages us to ask for these kinds of checks from our friends to protect ourselves against the abusive potential in romance and relationships. Think of a moment when you felt totally subsumed in a romantic experience. Who did you talk with about it, and how?
- What role does money play in your most important relationships, romantic or otherwise? What kind of conditioning have you received about how money should work in relationships? From whom?
The Path (2016)
This is the only fictionalized show on this list. It’s kitschy, and becomes more so as it goes along, but if you can tolerate the soap opera and metaphysical elements there are excellent questions here about loyalty, faith and trauma, all rotating around one family at the center of Meyerism, a (made-up) cult in upstate New York that’s a bit of an amalgamation of Scientology, Mormonism and hippie communes.
- Who are you loyal to, and why? This show helped me to consider how we define family and how we demonstrate loyalty to the people — or groups — we care for. What does it mean to you to protect your people? Who do you have shut out in order to do so, and how? For more on this, I recommend adrienne maree brown’s We Will Not Cancel Us.
- Who or what inspires you when you are feeling most down, and why? What tools do you use to connect with your own faith, whatever that means to you?
A Sinister Sect: Colonia Dignidad (2021)
Traumatized Germans flee Germany after WWII, following Paul Schäfer, a charismatic preacher/fugitive with a thing for young boys. The Germans found a colony in Chile that becomes entangled (trying not to spoil it for you) with Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship.
- If you were raised in a religion, consider what elements of religious practice or faith feel familiar to you, and what do not. I know I’m using the term “cult” often in this syllabus, but I think it’s also important to interrogate that term and notice the cult-like faith or practices that institutionalized religions also require of their followers. My friend Reslie points out “the cult of capitalism” or “the cult of academia” as two examples of systems whose rules we both follow even though we don’t ethically believe in their entirety.
- Who do you perceive as traumatized in this series, and how? What kind of trauma are we talking about? Does identifying someone as traumatized or harmed make you judge them differently for their own enactment of harmful behaviors? For more on a personal and political experience of collective pain, I recommend Cristina Rivera Garza’s Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country.
- Who has the power to resist violence and oppression in this series? Why are those particular people able to resist, escape, or think differently when others were not? There are many great resources out there about these kinds of defectors and resistors, and what makes them possible. Two I can recommend are Eyal Press’ Beautiful Souls and Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell.
The Deep End (2022)
Focused on Teal Swan, the wellness Instagrammer-cum-spiritual leader who has gained notoriety for purportedly encouraging people toward suicide. Vulture says this one is ushering in the “summer of cults,” so we have a lot to look forward to.
- As often, I found myself thinking a lot about gender in this one — particularly because Teal is a woman unapologetic about what she perceives to be her own superlative power and genius. What’s it like for you to watch this, and how does it affect how you feel about her? How is this similar to or different from how you feel about Ma Anand Sheela in Wild Wild Country?
Which utopian visions or healing opportunities resonate with you and which do not? Why? In addition to reflecting on this question and making your own work alongside it, it’s a good one to use to guide your future viewing ☺.